Repressions of Freud

Apr 29, 2012, 07:27 IST | Devdutt Pattanaik

Transformation of a repressed desire into myth is not a conscious process.

Transformation of a repressed desire into myth is not a conscious process. In the early 20th century, Freud saw myth and ritual as an unconscious expression of repressed dreams of a community that explained universal taboos against incest and patricide. In the Greek myth of Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother and who blinded himself to atone for this unintentional crimes, Freud saw the universal unspoken need of the son to compete with and triumph over the father for maternal affection. To him this Oedipus complex formed the foundation of (Judaic) monotheism—a guilty response to the killing of the founding patriarch (Moses) and enjoying what was rightfully his (the promised land). To Freud religion was nothing but neurosis, and the answer to myth lay in the unconscious.

While Greek mythology is full of stories in which a son is responsible for the death of his father or a father figure (Chronos castrates Uranus; Zeus kills Chronus; Perseus kills his grandfather, Acrisius; Aegeus killed himself, believing his son Theseus to be dead; Jason’s wife, Medea, kills his stepfather Pelias), such narratives are not found in Hindu scriptures. This indicates that the Oedipus complex suggested in myth is a cultural, not a universal, phenomenon. Tales in Hindu scriptures suggest a reverse-Oedipal, or Yayati, complex. In this case the father destroys the son in order to have his way.

When Devayani learned that her husband, Yayati, had secretly married her maid, Sarmishtha, and that the maid had borne him two sons, Devayani ran to her father the asura-priest, Shukra, who cursed Yayati to become old and impotent. When he realised the implications of the curse, Shukra modified it, stating that Yayati would regain his youth and potency if one of his sons willingly bore the burden of the curse. The youngest son, Puru, agreed to become old and impotent so that his father could enjoy life. Puru regained his youth and earned the gratitude of his father years later when, after indulging his senses in every way, Yayati realised the ephemeral nature of material things and decided it was time to let go and grow old.

In the Greek narratives sons triumph over fathers, humans triumphs over gods, the individual triumphs over society. The one who goes against authority and tradition is celebrated. The rebel, whether it is Prometheus (who opposes Zeus), Heracles (who stands up to Hera), or Ulysses (who challenges Poseidon) is deified. In Hindu narratives the hero is one who submits to the will of the father, society, and tradition. Obedience is the highest virtue. Rama is maryada purushottama, the perfect upholder of social values, because he always does what is expected of him. That is why he is God.

Not everyone appreciates Freud’s rereading of myths in terms of sexual anxiety. Some people do not agree with the view that all ritual and religion emerges from the desire to recall, remember, and repeat primal crimes that apparently marked the dawn of civilisation in order to come to terms with them. Indeed Freud’s mythography has been deemed reductive and phallocentric, focusing on penis envy with an almost misogynist zeal.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at 

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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